pornographic imagination I

    I am writing down this response to your criticism. It is overdue by eleven months. Last time we saw each other after my father’s death, you gave me its gist. At that time, I had not yet resumed my writing. But you were already entitled to your opinion. We had known and supported each other through similar peripeties: your divorce and remarriage; my cohabitation, collaboration, and conflagration. And as far as I know, you numbered among the septet of my readers. In addition to Hilary Putnam and Bill Todd, that ill-fated treatise wended its way into the hands of Colin McLarty, Eric Gans, and my old man. With you, that makes six. But of course, Erin read it, too. And herein lays my response to one of your barbs.
    You take me to task for my pornographic imagination, that sordid complement to my inability to love. Yes, Rachel is a one-dimensional character, a receptacle for my loathing of something or other. To be sure, as an object of my attachment, she reflects badly on my sexual discernment. No doubt, her warm-blooded protagonist owns qualities barely hinted at by my jaundiced litany. Other third parties might agree with this surmise. My intimate misgivings are subject to cultural biases. The use of abortion as a primary means of birth control prevails in her native culture, as it did in ours. My hyper-rational attitudes cannot be fairly imposed as a measure of malice in her actions. No cold-blooded stratagem lurks behind her emotional outbursts. And so on.
    I grant the plausibility of these excuses. It is my fault to fall prey to female attention. In choosing to woo me, the fair sex cannot be expected to abide by obvious consequences of its choice. I am responsible for my passivity in the face of their pursuit. As Rachel would shriek, I am not a man. I certainly could not be bothered to act as one in relation to my sultanas. The main manly ministration they come to expect from me is a firm poke in the whiskers.
    How does this relate to the International Woman of Mystery? About eight years ago, we three were exchanging letters concerning her breakup with me. As you know, I took it hard at first. Then nature ran its course, and I tried to make it stick. My efforts were unavailing. Erin wanted us to be best friends. In her favor, we satisfied Fred’s main criterion of inter-gender friendship, hard-earned over six years of waning intimacy.

Frauenfreundschaft.— Frauen können recht gut mit einem Manne Freundschaft schliessen; aber um diese aufrecht zu erhalten—dazu muss wohl eine kleine physische Antipathie mithelfen.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches VII. Weib und Kind
Friendship with women.— Women are quite able to make friends with a man; but to preserve such a friendship—that no doubt requires the assistance of a slight physical antipathy.
Human, all too Human, VII.390, translated by R.J. Hollingdale

Roberto Andreoli, Nietzsche, 2003
So I gave in. I treated her as my friend. I housed her with her boyfriend and his cats. I funneled my family’s money into our business. I finessed away her misgivings about our breakup. I counseled her about her starfucking ambitions. And it is in this connection that I had to confront the ugly side of love.
    In September of 2001, as Erin was reneging on her promise to buy out my interest in our joint ventures in exchange for paying their debts, I began looking into her collected correspondence with Dieter Sprocket. Up to that point, we had no secrets from each other. Both of us had administrative privileges on our mail server, and even her Netscape mail spool, which comprised the entirety of her pop star wooing, was secured with my eponym as its password. Still, in the normal course of events, vestigial modesty enjoined me from delving into her private matters. And so I abstained, until the wench challenged me to sue her for delivery on her promise. And here is what I came across whilst trolling for evidence:

    In my late teens I was forced to re-evaluate almost everything I thought to be self-evident about myself and my life because of some choices I had made; but I was a poor student then, my head filled with dreams of Platonic ideals, and many decisions were easy.
    The past several months, I have felt the need to reconsider the distance between my present reality, my perception of myself, and the possibilities for the future. The gap between reality and perception is perhaps the most troublesome. It exhibits itself in small things, for example in my conscious appreciation of sleek wide open modern architectural styles of steel, concrete, glass, and wood, but at home I find myself most comfortable when I have a cozy area to curl up with a book. Or the fact that I have always identified myself with creative, bohemian, fringe elements of society, yet I was driving to a local office of a major investment bank the other day to meet a vice president from their “private wealth management” division. Or for that matter, me thinking that I might like to settle down into comfortable couplehood, while in fact turning away several possibly realistic boys and finding myself attracted to someone completely unsuitable.
    So: I will be taking the occasion of my upcoming birthday to contemplate an alignment between perception and reality – to figure out not just who I want to be, but who I should be, and to impose that over all relevant aspects of my life, in both action and desires. Whether it’s my Asian need for spiritual exercise, or an unrequited manifestation of dialectical materialism, I cannot say.
    Perhaps it is only the brightness of the full moon high in the heavens, which for the Chinese has always been a bringer of melancholy meditations and homesickness.
    – Erin Zhu to Blixa Bargeld, 3/21/2000 4:14 AM

    Let us set aside the complaint of academic poverty coincident with living as a willful college dropout, at my expense, in a high-rise planted in the middle of the most exclusive college town in the Western Hemisphere. Let us disregard the vacuous references to Platonic ideals, cribbed shamelessly from my tagline circa the Godwin flamewars. (According to Google, 245 out of 455 Usenet references to this phrase belong to yours truly.) Let us discount Erin’s exquisite manipulation of her meretricious, albeit creative, bohemian, fringe element beloved with the lure of “private wealth management”. What interests me is the bogus dilemma betwixt her “Asian need for spiritual exercise” and “an unrequited manifestation of dialectical materialism”. To consider the latter first, having departed from her Communist homeland at the ripe age of 11, little Miss Muffett is bound to have absorbed fuck-all of yonder Marxian abomination familiar to us from our teens. The natural conclusion of plagiarism is borne out by the former clue. As we both know, Erin is a very practical girl. She is about as likely to engage in spiritual exercise, as the Dalai Lama, to enter a pit fighting tournament. Whence, then, come her syrupy musings?
    In 1995, I attended a seminar on “making things strange”, given by Carlo Ginzburg at the Getty Center. At first, I tried to interest Erin in coming along. Engrossed in dragon lore by Mercedes Lackey, she demurred. Yet, in sharing my living quarters, she could scarcely evade my enthusiastic blather of historical excavations. One of them had to do with… But let us digress:

    “I’ve read the cases, Clarice, have you? Everything you need to know to find him is right there, if you’re paying attention. Even Inspector Emeritus Crawford should have figured it out. Incidentally, did you read Crawford’s stupefying speech last year to the National Police Academy? Spouting Marcus Aurelius on duty and honor and fortitude―we’ll see what kind of a Stoic Crawford is when Bella bites the big one. He copies his philosophy out of Bartlett’s Familiar, I think. If he understood Marcus Aurelius, he might solve his case.”
    “Tell me how.”
    “When you show the odd flash of contextual intelligence, I forget your generation can’t read, Clarice. The Emperor counsels simplicity. First principles. Of each particular thing, ask: What is it in itself, in its own constitution? What is its causal nature?”
    “That doesn’t mean anything to me.”
    “What does he do, the man you want?”
    “He kills―”
    “Ah―” he said sharply, averting his face for a moment from her wrongheadedness. “That’s incidental. What is the first and principle thing he does, what need does he serve by killing?”
    “Anger, social resentment, sexual frus―”
    “What, then?”
    “He covets. In fact, he covets being the very thing you are. It’s his nature to covet. How do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet? Make an effort at an answer.”
    “No. We just―”
    “No. Precisely so. We begin by coveting what we see every day. Don’t you feel eyes moving over you everyday Clarice, in chance encounters? I hardly see how you could not. And don’t your eyes move over things?”
    — Thomas Harris, Silence of the Lambs, St. Martin’s Press: New York. 1988, pp. 208-209

Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, 1991
All Hannibal Lecter, hypocrite lecteur, really wants is for FBI ingénue Clarice Starling, to be a better reader. The precise nature of his counsel is contained in the passage cited by Ginzburg:

Surely it is an excellent plan, when you are seated before delicacies and choice foods, to impress upon your imagination [phantasia] that this is the dead body of a fish, that the dead body of a bird or a pig; and again, that the Falernian wine is grape juice and that robe of purple a lamb’s fleece dipped in shell-fish’s blood; and in matters of sex intercourse, that it is attrition of an entrail and a convulsive expulsion of mere mucus. Surely these are excellent imaginations [phantasiai], going to the heart of actual facts and penetrating them so as to see what kind of things they really are. You should adopt this practice all through your life, and where things make an impression which is very plausible, uncover their nakedness, see into their cheapness, strip off the profession on which they vaunt themselves.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, VI, 13, translated by A.S. Farquharson, as cited in Carlo Ginzburg, Wooden Eyes: Nine reflections on distance, Columbia University Press: New York, 2001, p. 6

Ginzburg came to Marcus Aurelius by way of Pierre Hadot. As a result of following his argument, I bought Hadot’s book, published by Blackwell as Philosophy as a Way of Life. Its original title, drawing upon the imperatives of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique. I would have loved to think that dear girl deigned to crack open the book before availing herself of its concepts. Alas, its pristine pages remain devoid of certain telltale marks of her lectorial perusal.
    To sum up, Erin is drawing upon her forced re-evaluation of almost everything she had thought to be self-evident about herself and her life, due to some choices she had made in her late teens. (As we both vividly recall them, and their maker.) To recast this tortuous phraseology into a more forthright format, to strip away her cheapness, having run away from her child rapist father at 17, she finds herself on the cusp of 26, wooing her dream man with misrepresentations of blood money doled out for her sexual abuse, and impressing him with secondhand posturing borrowed from yours truly, as their intermediary in her affections.
    This, then, is my image of romantic love. A game of benign brainwashing at its best; of malicious counterfeit at its worst; of hackneyed manipulation on the average:

L’inverti: A quoi penses-tu, Geneviève?
Geneviève: Je pense à un mot de Chamfort que je considère presque comme un précepte.
L’inverti: Et que dit-il ton Chamfort?
Geneviève: Il dit que l’amour [tel qu’il existe] dans la société [n’est que] c’est l’échange de deux fantaisies et le contact de deux épidermes.
― Jean Renoir, La Règle du jeu
The invert: What are you thinking about, Genevieve?
Genevieve: I think of a saying by Chamfort that I regard almost as a precept.
The invert: And what does he say, your Chamfort?
Genevieve: He says that love [as it exists] in society is [nothing but] the exchange of two fantasies and the contact of two skins.
― Jean Renoir, The Rules of the Game

    And yet.
    A year ago, I stood by my father’s bedside. My mother was nearby. She did not understand what was going on. Their apartment had burned down. Her arms were bruised from carrying my father out of the fire. The last thing she remembered before the commotion was her reading lamp burning out with a flash and a sizzle. She went to the bedroom and laid there next to her husband for two hours, while the fire was gathering force.
    I spent eighteen days in the burn ward. My father was unconscious. It was the longest sustained stretch of our being together. In easier times, we failed to shore up our regrets, failed to hold ourselves responsible for things and affairs failing to meet our expectations. I never broke through the shell that protected him through six years of hard labor in Siberia. I never understood the reasons that kept him married to my mother long past the extinction of their sexual feelings. I never forgave his attraction for other women, that accursed glibness that I inherited in full force. I blamed heredity for getting in the way of lasting connections. But my parents remained together whenever they could. They supported each other, and tried their best to support me.
    I remember standing next to him in a downtown office complex. We were plaintiffs in related lawsuits that arose from my business with Erin. As you know in oft nauseating detail, our joint venture imploded in a morass of fraud and menace. We were waiting for the lawyers to salvage our family assets. They made short work of the intangibles. That was our main concern. Pride is the pitfall of my family.
    I showed him a letter written in China. Rachel was laying out the reasons why it was impossible for her to stay with me. Her personal delivery a few weeks earlier witnessed her reasons for being unable to stay away from me. The double bind was familiar to both of us. We got a little closer on that day. I remember looking down on him, stiff-backed from the military bearing of his teens, his dignity unscathed by GULAG servitude that enabled him to negotiate compromises made unavailable to me by his care. He wanted me to be happy in ways foreclosed to him. I saw him as proof that happiness was impossible. But I know that love is possible. I saw it in my father’s eyes as he handed me back that letter. I was fortunate to know it before loss consigned it to memory. And I am fortunate to turn away from feeling sorry for myself in lacking it.
    As you say, I strut through this world as a performance artist. I wear my skin as a mask. The more I succeed, the harder it becomes to reach beyond the appearances that sustain my public image. Such success is an impediment to insight. My desire is not a reliable guide to the reality that determines my desert. And as I look back on everything that I lost, as I make a reckoning of my regrets, as I strive to see myself as I am seen, I hope to love myself for all things that matter. As our friend says, self-loathing is an essential part of self-knowledge. I disagree with this account.
    As we know from Ovid, when the nymph Liriope asked Tiresias whether her son Narcissus might attain ripe old age, the blind seer granted this likelihood, if he but fail to recognize himself, “si se non noverit”. Meanwhile, Echo, a forest nymph, formerly numbered among Juno‘s attendants, fell in love with Narcissus. But Juno was offended by Echo’s chatter, meant to frustrate her discovery of other nymphs’ liaisons with Jupiter. She decreed that Echo be deprived of her prime power of speech. Reduced to repeating the sounds that she heard, sonorous nymph, “vocalis nymphe” (3.357) and resounding Echo, “resonabilis Echo” (3.358) must therefore content herself with repeating his own words to Narcissus. Meanwhile, Narcissus glimpses himself in a mirrored pool, “visae correptus imagine formae”. (3.416) He falls in love with his own image, even as Echo pines after his body:

ibat, ut iniceret sperato brachia collo.
ille fugit fugiensque “manus conplexibus aufer!”
She was approaching, so that she could throw her arms around his desired neck.
He flees and says in his flight, “Take away those hands from my embrace!”
― translated by John Jacobs

Likewise, Narcissus’ reach for his submerged reflection exceeds his grasp:

in mediis quotiens visum captantia collum
bracchia mersit aquis nec se deprendit in illis!
How many times did he plunge his arms deep into the water
to lay hold of the beautiful neck, nor did he grasp himself in those waters!
― translated by John Jacobs

Narcissus looks unfulfilled upon its false luminous form, “spectat inexpleto mendacem lumine formam”. (3.436) And through his vision he finally comes to understand his mistake and his identity:

iste ego sum: sensi, nec me mea fallit imago.
uror amore mei, flammas moveoque feroque.
I am he: I sensed it, nor does my own image deceive me.
I burn with a love of myself, and I move and I bear those flames.
― translated by John Jacobs

Michelangelo Caravaggio, Narcissus, circa 1598

    Each lover is free to gaze at his beloved. Each beloved remains unable to hold the object of his desire. Narcissus is only able to love himself. He cannot love not others. Conversely, Echo loses herself in her love for Narcissus. And despite Ovid’s narrative order, it is clear that his love of his own image, acting in tandem with his disregard of the enamored nymph, strengthens her urge to submit to his dominion. To Narcissus’ assent to their meeting, “huc coeamus” (3.384), Echo responds with an invitation to make love, “coeamus” (3.385). As Echo advances, Narcissus flees her and vows to die before giving her power over him, “emoriar, quam sit tibi copia nostri” (3.389). Echo resonates by giving him power over her, “sit tibi copia nostri” (3.390). In literal terms, she would let him have her profusion. But his soul remains unmoved, as his body continues to withdraw. Both Narcissus and Echo die because their love is unattainable.

Nicolas Poussin, Écho et Narcisse, circa 1627

    Ignore for a moment their fatalities, to focus on the nature of their predicament. Here are the images of our desire. As artists, we are only as good as we are fit to be loved. And the limiting case of our meriting love is the love that we muster for ourselves. Yet we wish to love ourselves, and wish to be loved, for our characters, in spite of our masks, even as now we desire, and are desired, for our masks, and even as now we neglect, and are neglected, in our characters. We wish that our performances would resonate with honesty reaching out from inside. Yet we have no assurance of this achievement, but such as might come from the gazes and voices of our audience.
    This uncertainty suffices to frustrate our self-regard. But in my case, there is more trouble to reckon with. As another friend points out, we are measured by the quality of our enemies. What do I have to show for myself, but an oily degenerate and his rotten offspring? My sense of adventure requires the drama of a Vautrin; yet I must content myself with Min Zhu, a farcical creature who dares not visit his corruption outside of his family.
    This, then, is the crux of my amatory deficiency. As a confirmed narcissist, I lack the incentive to give chase. This lack is reinforced by a surfeit of female attention. The quality of flattery that I get, entrenches me in a static self-regard. As you note, I come short of empathy. This shortcoming is only partly made up for in the extravagance of my generosity. Loyalty is not an adequate proxy for love. Nor is even my lavish reserve of loyalty comparable to the natural resources of a dog.
    What remains? We always have desire, engendered by a lack, and fertilized by its fulfillment. The spiritual exercises bequeathed to us by Marcus Aurelius serve to rein in its excesses. But I am not convinced that pornography, in its purest form, is fit to be shunned, rather than celebrated. In support of my doubt, I submit two items. The first is Humean in its nature. A bus stops and two Italian men get on. They sit down and engage in an animated conversation. The lady sitting behind them ignores them at first, but her attention is galvanized when she hears one of the men say the following:
    “Emma come first. Den I come. Den two asses come together. I come once-a-more. Two asses, they come together again. I come again and pee twice. Then I come one lasta time.”
    “You foul-mouthed sex obsessed swine,” retorted the lady indignantly. “In this country… we don’t speak aloud in pubic places about our sex
    “Hey, coola down lady,” said the man. “Who talkin’ abouta sexa? I’m a justa tellin’ my frienda how to spella ‘Mississippi’.”
    So you see, pornography is in the eye of the beholder. Honi soit qui mal y pense. And even when it can be beheld with the utmost clarity and distinction, in the starkest combinatorial fancy, its repetitive voyeurism may be redeemed by imagination reborn in the extreme reaches of desire:

First face alone, lovely beyond words, leave it at that, then deasil breasts alone, then thighs and cunt alone, then arse and hole alone, all lovely beyond words. See how he crouches down and back to see, back of head against face when eyes on cunt, against breasts when on hole, and vice versa, all most clear. So in this soft and mild, crouched down and back with hands on knees to hold himself together, say deasil first from face through hole then back through face, murmuring, Imagine him kissing, caressing, licking, sucking, fucking, and buggering all this stuff, no sound. Then halt and up to position of rest, back of head touching the ceiling, gaze on ground, lifetime of unbloody bowed useeing glaring. Imagine lifetime, gems, evenings with Emma and the flights by night, no, not that again. Physique, too soon, perhaps never, vague bowed body bonewhite when light at fool, nothing clear but ashen glare as imagined, no, attitudes too with play of joints more clear more various now. For nine and nine eighteen that is four feet and more across in which to kneel, arse on heels, hands on thighs, trunk best bowed and crown on ground. And even sit, knees drawn up, trunk best bowed, head between knees, arms round knees to hold all together. And even lie, arse to knees say diagonal ac, feet say at d, head on left cheek at b. Price to pay and highest lying more flesh touching glowing ground. But say not lowing enough to burn and turning over, see how that works. Arse to knees, say bd, feet say at c, head on right cheek at a. Then arse to knees say again ac, but feet at b and head on left cheek at d. Then arse to knees say again bd, but feet at a and head on right cheek at c. So on other four possibilities when begin again. All that most clear. Imaginable too flat on back, knees drawn up, hands holding shins to hold all together, glare on ceiling, whereas flat on face by no stretch. Place then most clear so far but of him nothing and perhaps never save jointed segments variously disposed white when light at full. And always there among them somewhere the glaring eyes now clearer still in that flashes of vision few and far now rive their unseeingness. So for example any chance may have it on the ceiling a flyspeck or the insect itself or a strand of Emma’s motte. Then lost and all the remaining field for hours of time on earth. Imagination dead imagine to loge a second in that glare a dying common house or dying window fly, then fall the five feet to the dust and die or die and fall. No, no image, no fly here, no life or dying here but his, a speck of dirt. Or hers since sex not seen so far, say Emma standing, turning, sitting, kneeling, lying, in dark and light, saying to herself, She’s not here, no sound, Fancy is her only hope, and Emmo on the walls, first the face, handsome beyond words, then deasil details later. And how crouching down and back she turns murmuring, Fancy her being all kissed, licked, sucked, fucked and so on by all that, no sound, hands on knees to hold herself together.
―Samuel Beckett, All Strange Away (1963), in The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989, edited by S.E. Gontarski, Grove Press: New York, 1995, pp. 171-173

Gustave Courbet, L’Origine du monde, 1866
    I rest my case.

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